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Democracy, the Rule of Law, and Human Rights in Asia: The Empirical Record

Democracy, the Rule of Law, and Human Rights in Asia: The Empirical Record

Human rights may not be the most pressing need of the poor of Asia

Randall Peerenboom Email RandallPeerenboom

[The following article originated from a response by Professor Peerenboom to a message posted on a private on-line discussion group made up of credentialed individuals (scholars, journalists, diplomats, policy analysts) professionally engaged in the observation/analysis of contemporary Chinese society and politics. The message to which Professor Peerenboom responded had described the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a Mencian document in spirit.

Mencian, of course, refers to the Chinese philosopher Mencius (ca. 370-300 BC), one of the most important early proponents of Confucianism. Mencius, who was less concerned with religion than with ethics, championed the principle that human nature is essential good. It only runs to evil when provoked by eternal circumstances, in particular when government is inhumane and unjust. “The people are of the highest importance; the gods come second; the sovereign is of lesser weight,” Mencius is supposed to have said. Such thinking has often led observers to describe Mencius’s thinking as humanist.]

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Democracy and Economic Development


Democracy has worked in some places and not in others. That people would have doubts about the most recent wave of democratization is understandable given the disappointing results of earlier experiments with democracy in Asia and the lackluster performance of many recently democratized states that has led to a reversion to authoritarianism in several. Indonesia tried democracy just after independence from the Dutch between 1950 and 1957. The experiment ended when Sukarno declared martial law. Thailand has gone through numerous cycles of democratic elections followed by military-led coups -- since 1932, there have been some seventeen coups attempts. South Korea held elections in the 1960s and early 1970s before returning to authoritarian rule, at which point economic growth took off. The less-than-successful experiments with democracy in the Philippines from 1935 led to the declaration of martial law by Marcos in 1972.

Although opponents of “Asian values” argue that democracy is an intrinsic good, much of the debate in Asia has turned on empirical issues rather than the inherent value of democracy. The key issue has been whether a democratic or authoritarian regime was more likely to achieve economic growth and ensure stability. It is now common to claim that the results of empirical studies have been inconclusive on this issue. Nevertheless, although the studies have not shown show a definite winner with respect to regime type in general, the studies do allow conclusions to be drawn with respect to a number of other more specific questions (subject to the usual limitations of such studies).

It is now clear, for example, that when it comes to economic development, regime type is not as important as the stability of the regime and variations within regimes. In particular, regimes that are market-oriented, dominated by technocrats, and relatively free from corruption are more likely to be successful. Second, and a corollary of the first, some—but not all—authoritarian regimes have been successful at promoting economic growth. Conversely, although some democracies have been successful at promoting economic growth, not all have. Third, all else being equal, authoritarian regimes tend to outperform democratic regimes at relatively low levels of economic development. Thus, promoting democracy in very poor countries may be putting the cart before the horse. Fourth, some Asian countries, including China, may not yet have reached the level of development that makes it likely there will be a transition to democracy, and even if there were, that democracy would be sustainable. Fifth, when the conditions for a durable or stable democracy are not present, the transition to democracy often impedes economic development, at least in the short term. Sixth, economic development is not sufficient for political reform and the emergence of democracy. Countries may develop economically and not become liberal democracies, at least for a considerable period. Hong Kong and Singapore are good examples. Seventh, higher levels of prosperity and economic development are likely to lead to a growing demand for democracy -- Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia are good examples. Whether economic development is the cause of democratization, in the long term, economically advanced countries are likely to be and to remain democracies. However, while proponents of democracy often claim that authoritarian regimes are particularly vulnerable to economic downturns, so are democracies, at least at relatively low levels of growth.

Democracy and Human Rights

As for the relationship between democracy and human rights, many studies using a variety of methods and definitions find that democracy reduces human rights violations. However, the studies also show that the biggest determinants of good rights records are political stability, the absence of wars, and high levels of economic development. Moreover, the studies that show democracy improves rights tend to assume a linear relationship: marginal improvement in democratization leads to a similar improvement in protection of human rights. Yet many qualitative studies have found that democratization has not led to better protection of human rights in the countries studied. Despite the much vaunted third wave of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s, regimes that combined meaningful democratic elections with authoritarian features outnumbered (liberal) democracies in developing countries during the 1990s. These regimes have been described in a variety of ways: semi-democracies, electoral democracies, illiberal democracies, soft or semi-authoritarian states, semi-dictatorships or a form of electoral authoritarianism.

A number of quantitative studies support the disconcerting results of the qualitative studies by showing that the third wave has not led to a decrease in political repression. Indeed, some studies have shown that political terror and violations of personal integrity rights actually increased in the 1980s. Other studies have found that there are non-linear effects to democratization: transitional or illiberal democracies increase repressive action. Helen Fein described this phenomenon as "more murder in the middle" – as political space opens, the ruling regime is subject to greater threats to its power and so resorts to violence. (See Helen Fein, “More Murder in the Middle: Life Integrity Violations and Democracy in the World.” Human Rights Quarterly 17, 1; 1987.) More recent studies have also concluded that the level of democracy matters: below a certain level, democratic regimes oppress as much as non-democratic regimes.

Democracy consists of different elements or dimensions, and thus most studies use a composite index to “measure” democracy. For example, the Polity IV measure increasingly favored by researchers is a 21-point scale made up of five components: competitiveness of executive recruitment, competitiveness of participation, executive constraints, openness of executive recruitment and regulation of participation. Other composite measures of democracy include civil liberties, freedom of press, minority protection, and so on. Which elements matter the most for the protection of human rights? Is there a sequencing effect that would recommend increasing political participation before increasing constraints on the executive, or vice versa? Some studies have found that political participation and limits on executive authority are more significant than other aspects, but that there is no human rights benefit at all until the very highest levels of political participation and executive constraints are achieved. However, these levels require moderate progress on each of the other subdimensions. In short, "there is no significant increase in human rights with an incremental increase in the level of democracy until we reach the point where executive constraints are greatest and where multiple parties compete regularly in elections and there has been at least one peaceful exchange of power between the parties. Put more starkly, human rights progress only reliably appears toward the end of the democratization process."

Rights and the Good Life -- Or Even Just Life

For all the attention paid to human rights, violations of human rights continue to be the norm rather than the exception. Somalia, Rwanda, Sierre Lione, East Timor, Aceh, Tibet, Iraq, and North Korea; Kurds, Palestinians, Tutsis, and Uygurs; one-quarter of the world's population lives below the international poverty line of $145/year per capita; 790 million lack adequate nourishment; one billion lack safe water to drink; two billion suffer from inadequate sanitation; 880 million lack access to basic health; and one billion adults are illiterate. By now the names and faces and problems are familiar, all too familiar, as one tragedy blends into another in a never-ending stream of misery that mocks the notion of moral progress and that shakes our faith in the ability of rights discourse to stem the tide of human suffering. And lest one think that these are only other people's problems and that rights discourse has managed to create a humane society closer to home, we need only recall that one of every five American children lives in poverty, some 30 percent of all Americans have no medical insurance, and five to ten million are homeless; meanwhile, we have the highest rate of incarceration in the world, one-quarter of all African American males under the age of 25 are in jail, on probation or on parole, and capital punishment is still practiced in a way that a U.N. Special Rapporteur describes as arbitrary and racially discriminatory.

Confronting a seemingly endless succession of war and acts of aggression, genocide, ethnic and religious hatred, poverty, mass starvation, an ever increasing gap between rich and poor both within countries and between countries, intolerance of opposing view points, and inhumane treatment of criminal suspects, perhaps we will at some point conclude that rights-talk may be a dead end, that maybe we took the wrong path, and that it is time to try something different.

The tragedy of the human rights movement lies not so much in its many well publicized conceptual shortcomings, but in its practical weakness in the face of human avarice and indifference, ethnic hatred, and power politics. The reality is that the citizens of rich and powerful countries do not want to spend the financial and political capital it would take to address human rights violations in other countries. Despite globalization and the ready availability of 24-hour news programs that feed us images of massive human rights violations around the clock, we define ourselves not in universal terms as featherless bipeds, but rather, in terms of more particular identities that distinguish between us and them. As Marxists and Confucians before them learned the hard way, changing people's character is no easy task. We are still selfish, much as we were two thousand years ago, long before the ascent of the human rights movement. Despite all of the self-congratulatory talk of moral progress and how we no longer allow slavery, at least explicitly, most of us still stand idly by while much of the world's population lives in abject poverty, all too willing to work in unsafe conditions for a fraction of the wages made by their counterparts in developed countries -- and yet even then workers in developed countries begrudge them the jobs. Our altruism has limits. We still want our lattes from Starbucks and our nice houses with direct TV and plasma screens while others are starving and living impoverished lives, not only in other countries but right in our own communities. And we learn to live with the guilt and to reduce, but never eliminate, the cognitive dissonance of this by pointing out that we have the right to the fruits of our hard labor and thus our property. And if that does not work, we are quick to blame the victims, noting that there are practical problems to solving these issues -- aid will only be wasted, used for war, or end up in the Swiss bank accounts of corrupt officials.

With the developed countries controlling the United Nations Security Council and determining to a large extent not only the content of international law but also how it is implemented, there is little hope that the fundamental economic inequities that result in so much human suffering around the globe will be addressed anytime soon. Until such inequalities are addressed, however, the idealistic vision of the human rights movement will remain but one more in a long series of utopian dreams, capable of improving enough people's lives to comfort us that we are making moral progress, while at the same time undermining or inhibiting the development of new vocabularies and, at least in some cases, giving rise to its own form of repression and intolerance.

None of this is to deny that the notion of human rights captures important values or that the human rights movement has had a positive effect in improving people's lives in many cases. Much less is it to call into question the motivations of many of those in the human rights movement or to defend the violations of human rights by despotic governments or for that matter by an indifferent international community. Nor have I here provided a substantive alternative to human rights. Perhaps the discourses of needs or capabilities may provide a way forward. Rather than relying on the narrow standards of civil and political rights, perhaps the broader measures of the UNDP Human Poverty Index will be more useful. And notwithstanding the limits of dialogue, perhaps a broader and more genuine cross-cultural inquiry will lead us to rethink the liberal biases of the current human rights movement, and to reconsider the role of religion and more fully incorporate the values, lessons, and worldviews of the world's religious traditions. Perhaps such a dialogue will lead to a different balance between the individual and society, or to assign a higher priority to poverty, economic rights, and the growing disparities in wealth within and between countries. And perhaps greater attention to international relations and political science will ground the new order in the real world of power politics rather than in abstract and utopian theories.

There is of course no guarantee that any of this will result in a new and improved discourse that commands universal assent, or that it will somehow provide the magic key for changing human nature and produce less selfish human beings with greater empathy and compassion, or that it will necessarily alter fundamental economic realities or redress the imbalance of power among states. But without a realistic appraisal of the strengths and weaknesses of rights discourse and the current human rights movement more generally, we are likely to end up with more of the same -- and with 18 million people dying of starvation and preventable diseases each year, that is just not good enough by any standards, including current human rights standards.

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Randall Peerenboom is a professor in the School of Law. He received a Ph.D. in comparative philosophy from the University of Hawaii in 1990, and a J.D. from Columbia University in 1993. Professor Peerenboom teaches Randall Peerenboom teaches International Human Rights, Comparative Law: China, and Doing Business in China, the only transactional clinic of its kind in the United States. Professor Peerenboom is on leave this year, practicing law in China.